The History of wikiHow in 7 Fascinating wikiHow Articles


Spend enough time looking stuff up on the Internet, and you’ll eventually run into the weird, fascinating, addictive, and surprisingly poignant world known as wikiHow. Want to know How to Be Sophisticated, Become a Writer, Survive in Federal Prison, Make the Letters of the English Alphabet, Kiss, or Get Six Pack Abs? Here is a place where a wondrous amalgam of human experience can show you the way. You may, in fact, be asked to share your own expertise in, say, dating, grilling zucchini, annoying your brother, or seizing opportunities, to name a few. It may be inevitable that you’ll be sucked in still further by hitting the “random article” button and find yourself learning How to Become a Musician, Survive a Long Fall, Concentrate on Studies, Make Candelabras from Old Bottles, or Treat a Migraine.

Tech entrepreneur Jack Herrick launched the site ten years ago after selling his previous venture, eHow. He had a clear mission—to “help anyone on the planet learn how to do anything”—which he decided couldn’t be achieved through content farming. Instead, he launched the wiki site, allowing for as many volunteers as possible to share their hard-won experiential knowledge. Now, the site has more than a million users, 183,000 articles, and 22 paid staffers. (The most thorough articles might have dozens or hundreds of “co-authors.”) It has turned down multiple venture capital offers in order to stay focused on its mission, instead making its profits mostly from Google ads and by remaining headquartered in a house in Palo Alto, California. 

In honor of its decade anniversary, here’s a look at wikiHow’s history, told through seven of its biggest, best, strangest, and most useful posts.

1. How to Climb the Stairs with a Broken Leg

Matt Garcia may be only 19, but he’s had plenty of life experiences to share via wikiHow articles. The 21 articles started by the Canadian biology student include this very specific set of instructions, which he wrote while recovering from surgery. He has a heart condition and ended up on life support after having a heart attack in his mid-teens. One of the tubes required for the machines caused nerve damage to his left leg, putting him in a cast and on crutches. “It did feel really good to share that knowledge,” Garcia says.

In fact, many posts come out of users’ real-life experiences. One of community manager Krystle Chung’s favorite articles tackles How to Toilet Train Your Cat: “The part that I get a kick out of is one of the tips is, ‘Do not teach your cat to flush.’ It turns out your cat will flush all day long. You couldn’t hire someone to research that tip. Somebody actually found out the hard way.”

2. How to Love

The home improvement, cooking, and health articles make sense: They are clear processes with specific steps or problems with straightforward solutions. But some of  wikiHow’s most popular posts might as well be titled How to Be Human: They address kissing, getting a girl to like you, getting over a breakup, and knowing if a guy likes you, among other emotional topics. If only a computer could spit out answers to all of life’s dilemmas, right? Maybe it can’t exactly do that, but it can at least help. “It’s almost as if you have a friend to talk to when you read these,” says wikiHow COO Elizabeth Douglas. “Wikipedia is all factual information, things that are true or false. You don’t find the depth and the breadth and the empathy and the understanding of humans there. wikiHow is about people sharing their experience with others.”

3. How to Help a Spouse With Depression

Nicole Willson, a 33-year-old in Portland, Oregon, has been active on wikiHow since its earliest days, attracted to the idea because of her master’s degree in library science. And though she’s started more than 100 articles, her research standards and expertise make her even better at improving others’ work. When she first encountered the post on helping a spouse with depression, for example, it included tips about taking your partner out for a nice dinner. “If someone is chronically depressed,” she says, “that’s not going to help.” With her edits and others’, it’s become a thorough guide with an eye toward legitimate mental health resources.

In another article, about how to treat a common cold, she spotted a recommendation to get a Slurpee from 7-Eleven. “In those cases, I look for reliable sources for information to add,” she says. “It’s about information literacy. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Of course, that’s exactly why wikiHow—or any wiki—engenders skepticism. The site does have rules about what kinds of topics can be posted (in short, nothing that can cause harm) and has hundreds of volunteers as well as a few paid staffers reviewing every post. But Willson is also proof that the system mostly works: Some users might have good ideas for posts, even if they don’t have the knowledge to back them up. Others can come along and add their knowledge. As contributor Betsy Megas says, “The fastest way to a good page is a bad page.” 

4. How to Make Jello Shots

Willson has also used her research skills for less healthy topics, like contributing to wikiHow’s vast Jello Shot oeuvre. (Besides this introductory article that Willson started, there are also separate entries on specific kinds of Jello shots, from those including caffeine to various flavors to theme-party ideas.) “That’s what I like about wikiHow,” she says. “You’re not going to see this stuff in Martha Stewart Living. You don’t have to just do articles around what gets you ads.”

Maybe Martha Stewart and her ilk should reconsider, though, given the readership such entries attract. “It’s fun to see how the traffic changes as days and weeks go on,” Herrick says. “On New Year’s Eve you see How to Make Jello Shots spike, then like clockwork the next morning it’s How to Get Rid of a Hangover.” 

5. How to Sew a Cloth Baseball

Lois Wade made her first edit as a registered wikiHow user in 2007 and soon found herself relying on the site for what she calls her “frugal-to-a-fault” lifestyle. (Not surprisingly, she makes her living as a bookkeeper, based in Rancho Cordova, Calif.) She helped her teenaged son make a duct-tape wallet using wikiHow instructions, then started writing on the site herself with How to Sew a Cloth Baseball. (Her son wanted a pin cushion for home ec class that wasn’t that standard tomato-with-attached-strawberry.) Since then, she’s started more than 200 articles, including How to Make a Kitchen Towel Angel and How to Design and Sew Cold Weather Mitts for Drop Handlebars. “It’s dumbfounding,” she says of the online feedback she’s gotten. “If I advertised in my home area, ‘Come Learn How to Make a Towel Angel,’ I might, if I were lucky, get 10 or 15 people to come over. But on wikiHow, I’ve got millions.” That’s all the motivation she and many others like her need: “I just like helping people. I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is my entertainment, and I don’t have to wait for this show to come on.”

6. How to Escape from a Sinking Car

“It’s one of those things where you’d think it’s a joke article,” Herrick says, “but it turns out this actually happens pretty frequently.” About 400 people die this way every year, and it’s a particular problem in Canada, where 10 percent of drowning deaths happen in vehicles. “We get a lot of people writing and saying that reading about what to do in this situation eases their anxiety,” he says.

These response-to-emergencies articles have demonstrated real results: wikiHow staff knows of at least two babies who have been delivered using wikiHow instructions, and one person who got critical medical attention thanks to How to Recognize the Warning Signs of a Stroke. Such articles have prompted wikiHow to invest in careful translation of the site into 12 other languages. How to Recognize the Symptoms of Appendicitis, for example, is particularly popular in Spanish.

7. How to Change the Oil in Your Car

Megyas, a mechanical engineer in Santa Clara, California, has started lots of practical articles, tackling everything from fixing a running toilet to couch-surfing. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of such topics, she’s encountered a surprising number of heated debates among contributors: When she edited an article on How to Change the Oil in Your Car, for instance, she found out “how many people have strong opinions about how long you should let the oil drip out.” All of the frequent users have encountered clashes with others over article edits, but also say wikiHow is known for its sanguine approach to “edit wars.” The company’s leaders have worked to instill a culture of niceness—which emphasizes positive feedback and personal contact—that frequent users cite as the reason they’ve contributed so much. “We are nice to our community members,” Douglas says, “and we encourage them to be nice.” They even hold yearly gatherings for the active contributors, and the frequent users often speak of the site as “we” in conversation. “I find it hard to be offline for very long because of the community,” Garcia says. “It’s so hard to not be with them.”

All images via wikiHow.

job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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